While the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is reportedly ‘expecting’ to approve the Boeing 737 Max to return to US skies as early as the end of next month, Indonesia’s aviation regulator is among those internationally saying ‘not so fast’.
Indonesia Director General of Civil Aviation, Polana Pramest, said last week that the 737 Max might have to wait until the new year to take to the skies there, just one of a number of aviation regulators worldwide who are no longer content to rubber stamp FAA decisions or accept Boeing’s word that everything is good to go.
On October 29 last year Indonesia Lion Air Flight JT610 crashed into the Java Sea 12 minutes after take-off from Jakarta’s Soekarno–Hatta International Airport. All 189 people onboard the almost new Boeing 737 Max 8 were killed.
On March 1 this year Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 similarly crashed shortly after an almost identical roller-coaster take-off to that of Lion Air Flight 610. Between them the two crashes killed 346 people.
Boeing and the FAA must regain our confidence
“Boeing has to assure us, the regulators, that the aircraft is safe”, said Ms Pramesti, adding: “They also have to regain confidence from the pilots and the airlines, then educate the Indonesian customers”.
In March national flag carrier Garuda Indonesia cancelled an orders for 49 Boeing 737 Max’s said to be worth in excess of $4.9 billion, citing passenger fear of flying in them.
Indonesia’s stance has been echoed by regulators in China, Canada, and the European Union, who have said that they will conduct their own safety reviews before certifying the 737 Max to fly again there.
Ms Pramesti remarks came ahead of meetings held by the FAA in Canada and the US last Thursday (May 23) where it and Boeing began the start of what is looking increasingly like a turbulent path for the 737 Max back to the world’s skies.
In Montreal the US regulator and Boeing Company officials reportedly told the United Nations’ aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), of its end of June ‘expectations’.
Coinciding with the meeting in Canada, the FAA’s acting administrator Dan Elwell, met with 30 international air regulators in Fort Worth, Texas.
In a statement issued by the FAA on Friday (May 24) Mr Elwell said, “what happens next is that, here in the US, we await Boeing’s completed for changes to the MAX (sic).
“Once received we perform our final risk assessments and analyses, taking into account findings of the TAB (Transport Accident Board) and any information we receive from our international counterparts.
“We’ll also take part in test flights of a modified 737 MAX and weigh all the information together before making the decision to return the aircraft to service”.
|FAA’s acting administrator, Dan Elwell. No timetable for returning the 737 Max to the skies.
While denying rumours allegedly leaked from the Montreal meeting that the agency was ‘expecting’ an end of June approval, Mr Elwell told CNBC that US airlines “don’t need to make any changes to their plans” for keeping their 737 Max’s mothballed past the current August dates planned.
However, for US airlines to be in a position to reintroduce flights in August, preparations would need to commence around the end of June.
It has been revealed that a meeting last week between Boeing officials and airline representatives in Miami heard that it will take between 100 and 150 hours to ready each mothballed 737 Max for return to flight readiness; up to almost double the 80 hours needed to prepare each aircraft for storage.
Boeing defiant to calls for simulator time
This work includes fluid changes, engine checks, and uploading new 737 MAX software, however it does not include any pilot training. Boeing maintains that simulator training is not necessary for the 737 Max.
Instead it is recommending a computer-based audio course that explains its troubled Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), suspected as being the root cause of both aircraft crashes. The course is designed so that a pilot can complete it in his home in about one hour. Boeing has also offered to supply supplemental training that includes a video on emergency checklists.
Some international regulators and pilots, however, are pushing for either immediate or continuing simulator training, with revelations coming to light that US pilot unions had called on Boeing to push the FAA to issue what is known as an emergency airworthiness directive as early as last November.
At the time Boeing reportedly rejected the pilots claims, The New York Times reporting on May 15 that Mike Sinnett, a Boeing vice president allegedly said: “No one has yet to conclude that the sole cause of this (Lion Air Flight JT610 crash) was this function (the MCAS) on the airplane.
“The worst thing that can ever happen is a tragedy like this, and the even worse thing would be another one”. Less than four months later Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed, killing all 157 people on board.
While Boeing remains resolutely opposed to simulator training being required for the 737 Max to return to commercial service due to the cost of having to train every 737 Max pilot, that no 737 Max simulators currently exist outside of Boeing is also a significant problem.
So too is the fact that, according to a statement last week by Boeing, up until May 18 its existing 737 Max flight simulator was incapable of replicating “the difficult conditions created by a malfunctioning anti-stall system, which played a role in both disasters”.
|Former NTSB Chair James Hall says the Federal Aviation Administration has lost the confidence of international air regulators around the world
Video: Fox Business
According to the company “changes will improve the simulation of force loads on the manual trim wheel”.
The revelation came just two days after the company said it had completed modifications to the MCAS software.
Despite Boeing having yet to submit its revamped MCAS system to the FAA for approval, Mr Elwell told CNBC last week, “we’re pretty confident that the application is in good shape”.
Perhaps indicative of the reception he received from international aviation regulators, Mr Elwell’s Friday statement also said, “internationally, each country has to make its own decisions”.
With the FAA among the last globally to ground the 737 Max — the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) was the first, followed by Indonesia, and Mongolia — Mr Elwell is desperately attempting to restore confidence not only in the agency’s processes and procedures, but also in Boeing and the 737 Max.
Stop blaming dead pilots
Already angry that they had not been told of the MCAS’s existence prior to the Lion Air crash, attempts by the FAA and Boeing to push the blame onto the dead aviators have only served to alienate pilots even more.
Testifying before a US House Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation hearing on May 15, the FAA and Boeing both claimed that pilot training and pilot skill levels were “significant contributing factors” in the two crashes.
A reportedly “incensed” US Allied Pilots Association (APA) president, captain Daniel Carey, told The Seattle Times “Boeing needs to stop dodging responsibility and stop blaming dead pilots for its mistakes”.
Similarly outraged was APA spokesman Dennis Tajer, who was quoted as saying said that ‘the laying of blame on foreign pilots could logically lead to the notion that the Max should be flying only in America, a position that would harm Boeing’s interests in selling the plane globally’.
Cutting to the chase, National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) chair, Robert Sumwalt, told the hearing “if an airplane manufacturer is going to sell airplanes all across the globe, the airplane needs to be trained to the lowest common denominator”.
Lion Air’s terrifying death dive re-enacted
With Boeing and the FAA attempting to repair their tarnished images by blaming dead pilots, 60 Minutes Australia two weeks ago gave its viewers a terrifying cockpit view of Lion Air Flight JT610’s final flight.
With the data from the doomed Indonesia flight punched in to a flight simulator, it doesn’t take long before British 737 pilot Chris Brady admits to “feeling uncomfortable” by the ground appearing to hurtle towards him.
While the cacophony of sirens and spoken alarms that would have been sounding in the cockpit at the time were deactivated for television, the action of the MCAS and the sudden forced nose-down attitude is clear.
Mr Brady shows how the MCAS hijacked the flying of the aircraft away from the pilots for 10 seconds at a time, with a five-second pause in between.
Each time the MCAS activates it lowers the aircraft nose 2.5 degrees until it reaches a maximum of 40 degrees. An angle that one aviation expert says in the 60 Minutes Australia report is “kamikaze stuff”.
In March the NYT reported that 737 Max pilots who recreated Lion Air Flight JT610 in simulators in the USA found that they had less than 40 seconds to identify the cause of the nose being suddenly pointed downwards, disable the MCAS, and restore the aircraft to climb.
Asked by 60 Minutes Australia’s Liz Hayes how soon the passengers would have known that “things were not good” and what he thinks they would have felt, a visibly emotional Mr Tajer responds with a barely audible “it’s very very sad. They must have been terrified”.
Echoing the concerns of pilots, regulators, and passengers Mr Tajer rhetorically asks Ms Hayes: What else has got through and what else could be onboard that we haven’t seen yet?
In the wake of last week’s FAA briefings Tewolde GebreMariam, CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, said “if we fly them (737 Max) again, we’ll be the last airline to fly them again. At this stage, I cannot fully say that the airplane (737 Max) will fly back on Ethiopian Airlines”.
With a reputation for taking the hardest stance of any Asean member state against pirate fishing vessels found in its waters, dismissing out of hand the protests of its fellow Asean neighbours, Ms Pramesti has 189 reasons not to take anything except a cautious approach to letting the 737 Max fly in Indonesia again.
Sreypov Men in Phnom Penh contributed to this story.
- How safe are Asean airlines? Pretty safe actually (updated) (AEC News Today)
- Asian carriers rein in expansion as 737 Max woes hit peak season (Nikkei Asian Review)
- More ASEAN nations ban Boeing 737 MAX jets (The Asean Post)
- Optimism After Daylong Meeting On Efforts To Fix Boeing 737 Max (NPR)
He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia.
He has covered major world events including the 1991 pillage riots in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010 and 2014 Bangkok political protests.
In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.
Prior to AEC News Today he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.